Most of the time the Sun is quiet, shining in space beaming out light and heat. But every eleven years it gets cranky – covered in dark spots and fiery eruptions. This is a time called solar maximum, or solar max for short.
The Sun, like all stars, is a big ball of plasma – mostly hydrogen and helium. Because the Sun is so big – 100 million times bigger than Earth – it has a lot of gravity. The gravity squeezes the plasma so hard that it gives off heat and light. Scientists call this nuclear fusion.
Nuclear fusion also makes magnetism, making the Sun a giant magnet in space.
As the Sun spins around in space, the magnetism inside the Sun becomes more and more twisted. After 11 years of twisting the magnetism begins to snap apart – like a rubber band that’s been twisted too much.
When the magnetism snaps, sunspots (dark patches) appear on the surface of the Sun. Prominences and flares are also common, which look like loops and tongues of fires erupting from the Sun.
Flares cause pieces of the Sun – called radiation – to blast into space.
Luckily, our planet has a strong magnetic barrier that protects us from this radiation. Sometimes the radiation causes satellites to turn off or cause electricity supplies to black out. It can also make beautiful lights in the night sky close to the North and South Poles, called aurora.
There are many telescopes and spacecraft watching the Sun. For example, the SOHO spacecraft has been doing it since 1995.
Another spacecraft called Genesis captured pieces of the Sun and brought them back to Earth.
In 2018, scientists will send a spacecraft called Solar Probe+ to travel into the Sun. They don’t expect it to return.
This article appeared in the January 2011 edition of Scientriffic.